The Practice and Gift of Dana

Today I offer the gift of words. The following message is from Dana Samani, past member of the School of the Spirit Council, who has generously offered a story on the practice of Dana.

The Council has been wondering and talking for some time about the idea of whether to charge for adult classes. It has taken on several different forms throughout the years and we invite you to read Dana’s message- one that speaks to the heart of the matter. In speaking with Dana after this posted she added, “I have heard from my Buddhist teachers, in talking about the reasons for and of the practice of Dana, ‘The Teachings are priceless, therefore, they are offered without charge.’ ”  So we ask how might we apply this practice to our School of the Spirit lifespan offerings? It is a question we are exploring. I find this message is timely also because of the Combined Campaigns currently in progress at the Fellowship.

A heart-full of gratitude to Dana Samani for her beautiful words and lesson. In Peace, De Anna

Dana  – by Dana Samani

The practice of Dana is a 2600 year-old tradition of Buddhist communities in many parts of Asia. It has been brought to the West, with some alterations and adaptations, along with the Buddhist teachings.

The Pali-language word “Dana” means “gift, generosity freely-offered.” It refers on one hand to the gifts offered to the monastics and other teachers as a way to support them and the continued transmission of these teachings. The process is generally that people offer what they can, according to their capacities. It has worked in many parts of Asia for the last 2600 years to support the monastics and to preserve the teachings for today’s people. It has warmed my heart to attend Asian-American community gatherings, and to see parents teaching their young children how to respectfully approach a monk or nun, and how to offer them robes, or food, or other requisites of daily life. The children are taught from a very young age how to joyfully offer Dana.

Secondly, and equally important, Dana refers to a practice. In Buddhism, the human characteristic of greed/craving/clinging is understood as one of the obstacles to finding peace in oneself; we seem to be always looking for more or better. Fortunately, along with a tendency toward greed, we humans are also blessed with the characteristic of generosity, which tends to counteract our greed. So, the practice of Dana serves as a way to remind ourselves, and to reinforce our more-skillful tendency toward sharing and community, and of being satisfied with “what is.”

Beyond this, the practice of Dana also serves to help the person who practices it to develop their capacity for “relinquishment,” or “letting go.” As we learn to let go of whatever gift we offer, we also learn the skills of letting go of other things in our lives; we learn to let go of our opinions, our preconceived notions, our regrets, our grudges. The same energy we develop in practicing Dana, teaches us how to let go of self-importance, of narrow views, of needing for things to be a certain way in order for us to be happy. 

Much like Ben Franklin talked about how firewood warms a person three times (when cutting, when splitting, and finally when burning), it is said that practicing Dana helps to make one happy in three different ways. One feels happiness when contemplating their intention to offer Dana. One feels happiness at the moment of giving their gift. And one feels happiness later when reflecting on their past acts of generosity.

As a transgender woman, I needed to face the challenge of finding a new name for myself to better reflect my authentic gender. The process was a bit of a winding road, as I tried on different names that felt like they suited me in my new identity, as well as honored my past history and relationships. It was a bit of an accident that I came across the name Dana as my final choice. I thought I had settled on the name Dana, pronounced “DAY-na.” But, I found myself having to correct my Buddhist friends in their pronunciation of my name, which they were familiar with as “DAH-na” in the Pali language. Finally, it occurred to me that the Pali word actually suited me perfectly. It reflects both my long-term Buddhist practice, as well as my intention for how I wish to live my life: practicing relinquishment, and in developing and promoting kindness and generosity. So, every time I write my name, or explain its pronunciation to yet another non-Pali speaker, I am reminded of one of my deepest intentions—for generating peace within both myself, and in the world at-large.

I wonder how the practice of Dana might align with our UU principles, how it might be introduced to our UU Fellowship, and how it might be applied to supporting our needs and outreach programs. As I think about the current campaign to raise funds to take us into the next many years (maybe not quite 2600 years) with a new building, I consider what my level of generosity might be; how will my practice of dana guide me in deciding how much I can contribute? And how might the practice of Dana be applied to supporting our many workshops and life-long learning projects?